At the Mark Taper Forum, the World Premiere of A Play Is A Poem allows some of the finest character actors in Los Angeles to revel in a series of brilliant one-act plays
By John Lavitt
Play Pictures by Craig Schwartz
Los Angeles (The Hollywood Times) 09/21/2019
Although no confirmation was needed, the world premiere of A Play Is A Poem at the Mark Taper Forum attests to the genre versatility and undeniable brilliance of Ethan Coen. Directed by Neil Pepe, this dynamic collection of one-act plays reveals why a play is like a poem. By presenting slices of life that represent vastly different realities, the individual vignettes represent self-contained moments in the lives of vastly different people. Each delineated slice of this theatrical event is part of a meal, capturing tastes of the complexity of the human condition.
Psychological at its core with a tendency to dive into the deeper waters of family trauma, A Play Is A Poem balances its emotional intensity with humor. On the verge of discomfort, as characters suffer, the audience can only laugh at the bountiful absurdities that human beings casually face in daily life. As the play suggests, if life is to be fully lived, entering such realms and crossing such boundaries must not be avoided.
From the beginning, Ethan Coen has known that boundaries were made to be crossed. Even in college, when he wrote his senior thesis on “Two Views of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy,” Coen tuned into the philosopher’s insight that, “Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything.” Like a poem, a play presents the meal without explaining how it was cooked or listing the ingredients. There is less of a “before” and “after.” Such directness has been a key to the success of the Coen brothers.
As the most essential and diverse writing, producing and directing duo of our time, the Coen brothers have been delving into the creative depths of genre filmmaking for over thirty-five years. Since their introduction to the world with the film noir thriller Blood Simple in 1984, the Coen brothers have done close to almost everything. From the cult comedy, The Big Lebowski (1998), and the Academy-Award winning literary adaptation, No Country For Old Men (2007), to the classic Western remake, True Grit (2010), and the Palme d’Or-winning psychological period thriller, Barton Fink (1991), their output is breathtaking. Delving into their filmography, more than ten other films could have been picked to define their ingenuity.
As actor Josh Brolin, who was at the premiere of A Play Is A Poem along with a who’s who of Hollywood luminaries, once said, “They just have an intrinsic understanding of how to structure a story perfectly.”
Despite such success, including winning four Academy Awards with his brother Joel–that are probably used as doorstops in their respective homes–Ethan Coen is never satisfied. Although the division of family creative duties has never been clear beyond Joel being titled the director of the early films and Ethan being titled the producer, Ethan clearly enjoys other kinds of writing projects. Thus, Ethan Coen published Gates of Eden, a collection of short stories in 1998. In January of 2008, his play Almost an Evening premiered Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company to enthusiastic reviews. He also has published two books of poetry and a volume of three satiric plays.
As a true artist, Ethan Coen also is something of a perfectionist. After the play, he was seen hurriedly crossing the lobby with a look of consternation draped across his face. Although the performance was a success and received a standing ovation, the writer seemed less enthusiastic. Thus, he reminded me of a time in the 1990’s when I went to a screening of a film at the Sundance Film Festival with film composer Danny Elfman. Although the screening had been a success, all the ultra-talented composer could focus on were sound errors during the projection of the film. It seems as if genius does hold itself to a much higher standard. Although such high standards result in quality work, it seems they can detract from one’s ability to enjoy the wonder of the moment.
From the audience’s perspective, however, Ethan Coen should feel nothing less than thoroughly pleased by the fruitful outcome of his latest venture.
For example, director Neil Pepe works with scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez to bring the same eye for detail that makes the films of the Coen brothers so renowned. Throughout Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), the Coen brothers create transcendent moments where the viewer wants to stop the film so the image onscreen can be kept forever as a painting. In A Play Is A Poem, the creative team transforms moments into these metaphorical paintings with an aesthetic exactitude that is inspiring. At one point during the play, a rose on a piano and a cigarette by a window become the essence of film noir beauty.
Beyond the beauty of the mise en scène, Ethan Coen expertly employs British-American singer Ellie McKay to provide musical transitions before and after each scene. Shifting in form and style throughout the production, her lovely performance smooths over the transitions and enhances the shift from trope to trope between each one-act vignette. Similar to the films of the Coen brothers, music is an ally that helps to heighten the narrative and improve the overall flow.
The success of A Play Is A Poem at the Mark Taper Forum follows familiar ground that reflects the classic genre somersaults of the films of the Coen brothers. At the same time, Ethan Coen’s work also covers new ground as well. In the old style, the hillbilly brow-beating of Appalachia in The Redeemers, the first one-act that opened the collection, resembles a cross between the boneheaded bad boys in Raising Arizona and the hapless villains in Fargo. Furthermore, the hard-boiled detectives of A Tough Case, the second one-act in the collection, feel like they could have walked right out of Miller’s Crossing (1990) or The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). Both one-acts highlight thematic beats, both traumatic and comic, that have been presented in the past.
In contrast, At the Gazebo, the third one-act in the collection feels like something entirely new. Although Ethan Coen has dabbled in Southern ways in the past in No Country For Old Men and True Grit, the characters have had a much harder edge. The only time he has danced with Southern aristocracy and manners was in the black comedy presentation of Professor G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks) in The Ladykillers (2004). However, the dance there is purely designed for comedic effect.
In At the Gazebo, however, Ethan Coen enters a new territory not previously ventured, crossing a new boundary into a realm traveled previously by Mark Twain and William Faulkner. The delicate jousting between Carter (Sam Vartholomeos) and Dorothy (Micaela Diamond) is a careful back-and-forth between repressed desire and traditional values. Coming together, the narrative feels like an inventive meeting of minds. Imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald and Flannery O’Connor sitting down to write a play together. Set beside a magnolia-scented gazebo in Natchez, Mississippi, the illusion of the old South battles against the grotesque shadows of the Southern Gothic reality that lurks behind closed doors. A step into a refreshing “old” territory, the one-act feels like something genuinely different in the extensive oeuvre of Ethan Coen.
Moreover, the final one-act in the series feels like a modern updating of the classic Hollywood takes presented in Barton Fink and Hail Caesar! (2016). Walking in the same territory as Michael Tolkin’s The Player (1992) and Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration (2006), Inside Talk parodies the life of a studio executive. He is forced to juggle terrible pitches as desperate producers try to sell them utter crapola. For example, try to imagine a romantic comedy set in a concentration camp.
As the studio executive, Peter Jacobson exudes the exhausted, yet amused fortitude of a survivor in a dog-eat-dog industry. Both Saul Rubinek and Jason Kravits are stellar as the desperate producers hunting down their next deal. The underlying frustration of the piece reflects the hundreds upon thousands of bad pitches that Ethan Coen has been subject to over the years by everybody and their mother.
By the end of the evening, this theatrical celebration of storytelling tropes is magnificent to behold. As the theatrical event of the autumn season, “A Play Is A Poem” by Ethan Coen at the Mark Taper Forum should not be missed.